Eating Alone Is Becoming More Common — and It's a Big Problem for Boomers

Looking for dinner in Berlin. What about this place?. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

"Sadder than the beggar is the man who eats alone in public." So said the late French sociologist Jean Baudrillard. Some would argue the point, but it does describe many men and women who are not comfortable eating alone, and instead either don’t eat at all or don’t eat well.

When in London recently, I realized as I walked along the Thames in the rain that I was really tired. Then I remembered that we had been at the theater the previous night, I had not eaten breakfast and that, in fact, I hadn't put anything but espresso into my mouth in over 24 hours. This is often the case when I'm alone: If food isn’t put in front of me, I don’t eat.

Gorki park restaurant
This place looked like fun. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Earlier this summer I was in Berlin, staying at a hotel that was in the middle of a street filled with interesting little restaurants. I would text my wife in Toronto with these pictures, asking "Where should I eat?" She liked the looks of Gorki Park, but I didn’t eat in any of them because I just don’t like eating alone. In the end, I got a little banh mi Vietnamese sandwich for a couple of euros and ate in my hotel room.

Eating alone is problematic for many people, particularly aging baby boomers. There are a lot of them, too; close to 40 percent of baby boomers are living alone because of late divorces, the deaths of spouses, or simply because they've always lived alone. The number goes up significantly with age.

Among older seniors, that trend is leading to malnutrition — and in some cases, starvation and death. Among boomers, it's causing different problems as they become the single biggest consumers of snack foods. It's so much easier to get quick calories from a tube of Pringles than it is to actually prepare a meal. According to a study by consultancy NPD Group, Boomers "consume ready-to-eat snacks about 1,200 times a year, which amounts to a total of 90.4 billion snack eating occasions."

"Our snacking research shows us that all snackers are not alike," said Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst and author of the company’s "Snacking in America" study. "Motivations, snack food choice, and when and where to snack differs among age groups." Older and younger consumers alike choose snacks based on taste and craving. The top three snack picks for both groups are fruit, chocolate candy and potato chips; however, boomers tend to favor nuts and yogurt, while millennials are more likely to reach for tortilla chips and cookies.
dining alone chart
The trend if dining alone changes with age. (Photo: Henrik Lindberg)

More and more of us are eating alone too, according to Henrik Lindberg:

In 2003, the tens of thousands of people who took part in the American Time Use Survey — a representative sample of Americans aged 15 to 85 — reported that they ate 32% of their meals alone. As the survey-takers continued collecting data over the years, that number rose to 35% in 2015.

There are other reasons that people often eat less when they get older. Cooking for one is a pain, especially as appetites decrease. When she still cooked, my late mom would make a Lean Cuisine dish last for two whole days. Her miserly eating habits represent a bigger trend. According to the website A Place for Mom, it all becomes a vicious circle.

Inadequate nutrition can lead to a weakening of the immune system, increasing the risk of illness or infections, or contributing to mental confusion. And continued malnutrition could lead to depression, which in turn could lead to a loss of appetite.

Eating has historically been social, something we do with other people. Writing on MNN about eating alone, Laura Moss quoted food writer Suzanne Lenzer:

"From day one we learn to eat in the company of others, and we figure out fast that the kids who eat alone at school are the kids who don't have anyone to eat with," she wrote. "Socially, eating alone is not a sign of our strength, but of a lack of social standing."
Wagamama interior
Nobody notices you eating alone in here. (Photo: Wagamama)

A lot of boomers are used to dining with someone, and changing habits is hard to do. So when I travel I have to force myself to eat something. In London, I hit the Wagamama for a yummy bowl of udon. The place is huge and full of picnic table seating, so nobody really notices if you're eating alone.

Eenmaal restaurant
An entire restaurant designed for people eating alone. (Photo: Eenmaal)

Laura also mentions Eenmaal, the pop-up restaurant in Amsterdam. Alas, it was only an art project, open for a couple of days, but designer Marina van Goor really nailed it. According to Pop-Up City,

Being alone has a negative image, according to Van Goor. Her one-person restaurant is part of a wider mission to break this taboo and to make it more attractive for people to be alone in public space. She’s definitely on[to] something here — particularly in contemporary urban design, public space is perceived as a place for people to meet and gather, rather than a place to be quiet and relax, alone.
Collective dining
Dining at the Collective, a co-living project in London. (Photo: The Collective)

As the demographic bulge of the baby boom gets older, the number of people living alone and dining alone is going to increase dramatically. Perhaps the co-living trend that young people are trying out in London and Brooklyn will catch on with baby boomers: specially built residential buildings with very, very small suites but lots of common dining, reading and working areas, for people who can’t bear the thought of a retirement home yet.

Or perhaps restaurants will become more welcoming to single people. According to Claudia McNeilly:

A deluge of new apps all seek to provide strangers with platonic dining companions. But instead of having dinner with an equally lonely stranger out of some misguided attempt at connection, the real solution lies in accepting that solo diners are an asset instead of a curse.

The baby boomer cohort is just huge, 75 million strong in the USA alone. One would think that this would be too big a market to miss.